WASHINGTON (AP) — By most accounts, Speaker Mike Johnson inherited a House Republican majority in disarray after the sudden ouster of his predecessor last month.
But as Johnson, R-La., tries to rebuild that slim majority, he’s fast running into the same hard-right factions and divisions that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was unable to tame. That’s disrupting the party’s agenda, shelving priorities and leaving gnawing questions about any leader’s ability to govern.
Capitol Hill devolved into fresh scenes of political chaos this past week as tensions soared. A Republican senator challenged a Teamsters union boss to a brawl, one of several outbursts involving lawmakers, and the untested new speaker was forced to abandon his own party’s schedule and send everyone home early for Thanksgiving.
“This place is a pressure cooker,” Johnson lamented. Hopefully, he said, people will “cool off.”
But the outlook ahead appears no better. House Republicans who pledged to slash federal spending, investigate President Joe Biden and end a long string of Democratic policies have made only incremental progress on their priorities.
Even though McCarthy struck a surprising debt deal with Biden earlier this year that set a course to reduce federal deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, a conservative victory, it exists mainly on paper.
Republicans have failed to pass all the legislation needed to put all those cuts into law and have yanked some bills from the House floor. Centrist conservatives said the measures went too far, however, as the hard-right faction demands steeper reductions in government programs.
With the days dwindling before a potential government shutdown, Congress had little choice but to pass another short-term measure that keeps federal spending on autopilot for a couple more months. That avoids a federal closure for now, but sets up the next showdown in January.
“We haven’t done anything!” thundered Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, lashing into his colleagues in a lengthy speech as lawmakers fled for the exits.
Conservatives took particular umbrage at the temporary spending bill, called a continuing resolution, that maintained spending at the levels that had been agreed to last year, when Democrats had full control of Congress and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was the speaker.
“When are we going to do what we said we were going to do?” Roy railed. “When are we going to act like a Republican majority and start fighting?”
It’s the same complaint that led the hard-right bloc to oust McCarthy in October, the first unseating of a speaker in U.S. history, and will threaten Johnson’s leadership.
The GOP divide on spending underscores the disconnect between Republican ideals for shrinking the size and scope of government and the reality of cutting programs and services close to home.
Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., was one of the more centrist conservatives who voted against a procedural step on legislation to fund the Justice Department, among other agencies, because he said the law enforcement cuts would hurt public safety agencies.
“My constituents don’t want me voting for that,” he said.
Republicans are also incensed they have been enduring countless midnight voting sessions, considering hundreds of amendments — voting to slash Biden administration salaries to $1, trying to end “woke” policies on diversity and inclusion — on legislative packages that ultimately go nowhere.
LaLota said after 10 months in the majority, the strategy is not working. “My constituents want us to cut, but they want us to cut in the right areas,” he said.
Complicating the work of Congress is a world at war.
Biden has asked Congress for a nearly $106 billion supplemental spending package to provide military and government aid to Ukraine as it fights Russia, and to support Israel in the war with Hamas and provide relief for Palestinians in Gaza. The package carries other priorities, including strengthening U.S.-Mexico border security, which will be a top priority when lawmakers return.
On the eve of voting, Johnson laid out his strategy for the stopgap measure, drawing on the hard-right Freedom Caucus’ proposal to break the spending bill into two parts, with funding set to expire on Jan. 19 for some agencies and then Feb. 2 for others.
But the conservatives panned the plan, and the caucus members said most would oppose it. Johnson rebuffed their suggestion to at least attach the House-passed Israel aid package as a way force the Senate to act.
Hard-right members rolled their eyes at Johnson’s strategy. But they said they wanted to give the new speaker the grace to find his way.
“The new speaker is respected. He’s admired, he’s trusted,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va. “You know, he’s human. He’s imperfect, like we all are.”
Republicans are well aware their slim House majority is increasingly at risk heading into the 2024 election season if they are unable to deliver on their promises to voters. Many lawmakers in both parties are choosing to retire rather than keep fighting the same battles.
Johnson defended his three weeks on the job, saying, “I can’t turn an aircraft carrier overnight.” He insisted he’s in “a very different situation” from what McCarthy faced.
“We have some great plans,” he told reporters at a news conference.
But Republican Rep. Garrett Graves of Louisiana, a top McCarthy ally, said the idea that “by electing a new speaker, you are going to suddenly have all these new options I think is now being realized this is not factual.”
He added: “I think that it’s going to continue to be a bumpy road going forward.”
After House Democrats provided the votes needed to help Johnson avert a federal shutdown, Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, whose party also delivered the votes to help oust McCarthy, said he is working to have a good relationship with the new speaker.
Asked whether he had any advice for Johnson, Jeffries said: “Good luck.”